With the departure of fullback Greg Comella, Giants Offensive Coordinator Sean Payton plans on using more single-back sets for Tiki Barber (856 yards rushing in 2001) and Ron Dayne (690). At Wisconsin, the bruising Dayne lined up as a single back – and he has claimed that in this set he has a better view of openings in the line.
But the effectiveness of "Lightning" and "Thunder" falls on the shoulders of a revamped Giants' offensive line that likely will be without veteran center Dusty Zeigler, who was sidelined all preseason with a knee injury. Luke Petitgout has served some time in the trenches, for sure. But how will fill-in center Chris Bober, guards Rich Seubert and Jason Whittle and right tackle Mike Rosenthal fare against San Francisco's defensive line – tackles Dana Stubblefield and Bryant Young and defensive ends Andre Carter, Chike Okeafor and John Engelberger.
In addition, the 49ers boast an athletic and deep group of young linebackers, led by LILB Derek Smith (the team's leading tackler in 2001), LOLB Julian Peterson and RILB Jeff Ulbrich. Waiting in the wings is speedy rookie Saleem Rasheed, a third-round pick from Alabama, who will see action in nickel and dime packages.
EDGE: SAN FRANCISCO
WHEN NEW YORK PASSES:
Again, inevitable questions arise about Big Blue's offensive line. Will it offer adequate protection for quarterback Kerry Collins? And, speaking of Collins, will he be able to protect the football if the 49ers break down the pocket? In 2001, Collins set an NFL record for fumbles by a quarterback with 23 – and he turned over the ball twice in the Giants' dreadful preseason game at Atlanta.
That aside, the Giants finally have the pass-catching tight end they so desperately needed in first-round pick Jeremy Shockey. Last season, Big Blue got a paltry 17 receptions from the tight end position, 13 by Dan Campbell, three from Marcellus Rivers and one from the since-retired Howard Cross.
In the preseason, Shockey showed a national television audience why he was so highly coveted, with an impressive catch and defender-shedding 48-yard rumble down the sideline during the Hall of Fame Game. He should find soft spots in the San Francisco defense – and looms as the main focal point in the Giants' passing attack.
At wide receiver, dependable veterans Amani Toomer – who, with Barber, paced Big Blue with 72 receptions – and Ike Hilliard are the starters. San Francisco free safety Zack Bronson and cornerback Ahmed Plummer have good cover skills, sharing the team lead for interceptions in 2001 with seven. As insurance, the 49ers recently signed hard-hitting veteran safety Chad Cota.
EDGE: NEW YORK
WHEN SAN FRANCISCO RUNS:
Bolstered by an improved offensive line, running back Garrison Hearst enjoyed a banner season in 2001. Hearst ran for 1,206 yards (4 TDs), as San Francisco ranked No. 2 in NFL rushing with 2,244. Hearst is a slashing, inside runner, who will be challenged throughout the night by MLB Micheal Barrow – Big Blue's leading tackler (135) last season.
Tackles Keith Hamilton and Cornelius Griffin will try to neutralize the 49ers' interior offensive linemen and allow Barrow and fellow linebackers Dhani Jones and Brandon Short to make plays.
One of the 49ers' biggest areas of improvement last season was its offensive line, which features talented center Jeremy Newberry and ex-Giant Scott Gragg at right tackle. The line got a boost in the off-season with the signing of Giants free agent Ron Stone, who will start at right guard.
Pre-season injuries have, however, taken their toll. Stone sat out most of camp after suffering an injury in the 49ers' first exhibition game – while an ankle pull sidelined Newberry. But when Newberry returned, he fractured the ring finger on his right (snapping) hand. Despite the injury, Newberry has moved back into the starting lineup and is snapping with his left hand, until the finger heals. Given the circumstances, the talented, but bruised, 49ers offensive line has as many question marks as the Giants' OL.
EDGE: SAN FRANCISCO
WHEN SAN FRANCISCO PASSES:
Big Blue's secondary faces the unenviable task of stopping San Francisco's dynamic passing attack. The Giants' front four – particularly DE Michael Strahan, who recorded an NFL-record 22.5 sacks last season – must pressure QB Jeff Garcia, while Big Blue linebackers have the responsibility of containing his scrambling.
Garcia had a breakout season in 2001, completing 316-of-504 passes for 3,538 yards and 32 TDS, while being intercepted only 12 times – and he was San Francisco's third-leading rusher with 254 yards and five TDs. Proof of Garcia's comfort with the West Coast Offense is illustrated by how he distributed his passes, as six San Francisco players had at least 22 receptions. The best of the lot is physical (6-3, 226) and fleet wide receiver Terrell Owens, who earned All-NFL honors last season with 93 catches for 1,412 yards and 16 touchdowns. Owens is most effective catching the ball in the middle of the field on slants and posts.
J.J. Stokes is another big target (54 catches, 7 TDS), while tight end Eric Johnson (40) and Hearst (41) can also do damage on short to medium routes. Should Giants RCB Jason Sehorn not be 100 percent recovered from a knee injury and relegated to nickel-back duty, cornerback Will Petersen will join Will Allen in lining up against Owens and Stokes. Covering San Francisco's talented WR duo should help the maturation process of both young corners.
EDGE: SAN FRANCISCO
Will the Giants' special teams woes be corrected under new coach Bruce Read? Big Blue didn't re-up veteran kicker Morten Andersen, who signed with Kansas City, leaving placement duties to young Owen Pochman. Punter Rodney Williams was frustratingly erratic last season after an auspicious debut on Monday Night Football in Denver, when he rocketed the ball 90-plus yards.
On the positive side, rookie Darnell Dinkins has the potential to be a one-man wrecking crew on coverage teams – an area where the Giants need to vastly improve their tackling proficiency. At press time, San Francisco rookie Jeff Chandler and incumbent Jose Cortez were locked in a head-to-head battle for the team's kicking job. Jason Baker will again handle the 49ers' punting duties, while Vinny Sutherland is the incumbent punt and kickoff return specialist. Tiki Barber remains the Giants' punt returner, while veteran Ron Dixon and rookie Tim Carter will handle KR duties.
EDGE: SAN FRANCISCO
Uncertainty on both the Giants' and 49ers' offensive lines due to injury and inexperience may prove to be a key, as the longtime NFL franchises open the season on Thursday night at Giants Stadium in front of a national television audience. But there are other questions that the Giants must answer.
How will the special teams perform? Will punter Rodney Williams begin to shake his inconsistency? How will the relatively untested Pochman stand up to the pressure as Giants' placekicker? Will the Giants' kick and punt coverage teams show more discipline in staying in their lanes – and stop missing so many tackles?
Collins needs to show more pocket-awareness when defenders pressure him to prevent a repeat of last season's awful record-setting fumble total. Last season, Collins completed 328-of-568 passes for 3,764 yards and 19 touchdowns. But he was intercepted 16 times, and needs to improve his TD/INT ration. The presence of Shockey should help immediately, as the 49ers' secondary won't be able to concentrate exclusively on the wideouts and Barber.
Last season, Giants DE Kenny Holmes was often an invisible man. Holmes needs to step it up against the 49ers and display the tenacity he showed as a member of the Tennessee Titans. If Holmes is ineffective, Staten Island native Frank Ferrara will replace him. If either rises to the occasion, he will provide hours of extra preparatory work for offensive coordinators preoccupied with stopping Strahan.
San Francisco doubled its win total last season, finishing 12-4, and is considered to be a viable challenger to the St. Louis Rams for the NFC West title. And, with teams reshuffled into new divisions, the 49ers will gladly exchange the often-troubling New Orleans Saints, who move to the NFC South, for the Seattle Seahawks.
While a major reason for the 49ers resurgence has been the offensive leadership of quarterback Jeff Garcia, the defense yielded only 282 points last season – an impressive improvement from the 422 points allowed in 2000.
EDGE: SAN FRANCISCO